Though best known for My Fair Lady, the musical duo of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe also created one of the all-time great Broadway musicals: Camelot. Lifted high on a wave of soaring music and exquisite lyrics, audiences are compelled to witness the happy rise and tragic fall of King Arthur’s court. The first half of the play celebrates the courtship and marriage of Arthur and Guinevere. Inspired by his love for Guinevere and for justice, Arthur creates the Round Table and establishes a kingdom where might is to be used for right.
Sadly, Arthur’s dream is no sooner accomplished than his greatest knight, Lancelot, and his beloved queen fall into an adulterous affair. As a result, the Table cracks, the dream shatters, and England falls into civil war. But the play does not end there.
In the final scene, the despondent king comes upon a boy lurking in the shadows. When he questions the lad, he discovers that he has sought out Arthur in hope of becoming a knight. Arthur is shocked and asks the boy how he learned about the Round Table. Through stories, the boy tells him, stories about brave knights who fight evil and rescue fair damsels. In response, Arthur knights the boy and commissions him to stay behind the lines and survive the battle so that he may carry on the tales of Camelot.
I have always been intensely moved by that closing scene, for it enshrines a great truth about us and our world. Because we are noble creatures made in God’s image, we will continually strive to build Camelot. But because we have fallen into sin, our dreams will always fail in the end. When I took my teenaged children to see the play, I impressed this paradoxical truth upon them, challenging them to assist in the building without being dismayed by the inevitable failure.
It was, therefore, with great joy that I took up David Skeel’s True Paradox: How Christianity Makes Sense of Our Complex World. Like few others apologists I’ve read, Skeel demonstrates a keen insight into the riddling, enigmatic nature of our dreams, our desires, our struggles, and our humanity. It is not just that we persist in our attempts to build a utopian society in spite of the fact that all such utopias have failed. We simultaneously yearn for beauty, even though we know it is fleeting and cannot be sustained in our flawed world. And we sympathize with (and demand justice for) those who suffer—even though we live in a world where pain is ubiquitous and seemingly arbitrary. And if that were not enough, we insist, in the face of an unconscious, impersonal natural world, on making up theories and ideologies and systems of belief for which we claim universality.
According to Skeel, all of these desires to reach after some kind of lasting Goodness, Truth, or Beauty are essentially paradoxical: for they set at odds our experience of the world and our experience of being human. They are so paradoxical (and so essential), in fact, that they simultaneously demand an explanation and offer themselves up as criteria for judging which of those explanations is most likely true. If any given belief system can only account for one side of these paradoxes, it is likely false. But if a system is wide and deep enough to account for both—one relevant to all ages and cultures—then it demands scrutiny and perhaps allegiance.
The Best Answer
Although Skeel teaches corporate law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, he does not approach this subject in the manner of a lawyer. Indeed, in sharp contrast to such fine and justly admired apologetic works as Phillip E. Johnson’s Darwin on Trial, Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ, and W. Mark Lanier’s Christianity on Trial, Skeel pointedly avoids the methods of logical debate and cross-examination. Such methods, he argues, fail to allow dissenters to fully air their objections and struggles. Nor, he claims, do they connect with postmodern people who no longer trust the legal system to uncover real and lasting truths.
Rather than challenge Christianity’s main worldview competitors (materialism, pantheism, and dualism) to a sparring match over cosmology or philosophy or the fossil record, Skeel invites them to offer a better answer to the paradoxes of life. But he first lays down a vital ground rule: The winning system must “include elements that seem unusual or even preposterous for the time in which the relevant system was generated, yet persuasive and true from our perspective...[while also including] elements that run strongly counter to the conventional wisdom of our place and time.”
Thus, Skeel points out, whereas the goals, visions, and codes laid down by the New Atheists sound suspiciously like those “widely held by New York Review of Books readers,” the teachings of Jesus often ran counter to the culture of his time. This is nowhere more evident than in Jesus’ affirmation of the equal dignity and worth of all people: Jew or Gentile, male or female, free or slave. And yet, when we moderns read the New Testament, we cannot simply pat ourselves on the back and gloat over how much more moral and enlightened we are than the people of the first century. Whereas many Americans and Europeans harbor an “obsession with equality” that would deny “that there are any relevant differences between us,” “Christian equality rejects the view that we are interchangeable, insisting instead that each of us has a baseline dignity that comes from being made in our Creator’s image.”
Here, as in all the paradoxes Skeel investigates, the Christian answer fits better with the complexity inherent in our world. Consider our response to beauty. The materialist (who believes the material world is all there is) writes it off as a byproduct of evolution, meant perhaps as an aid to sexual selection or social cohesion. There may be some truth to these explanations, Skeel concedes, but they are finally too “thin”: They “flatten out the complexity of beauty and describe something that most of us do not recognize as its essence.”
The pantheist (who believes that God and the material world are one and the same) comes a bit closer in addressing our subjective, but universal experience of beauty. Because he believes that all of nature is divine, he can account for that numinous thrill many of us experience when we gaze on an ocean, a forest, or a mountain. But his worldview only covers half of the paradox: “If everything genuinely is divine, why are the bursts of beauty we experience so intermittent and short lived?”
As for the dualist-deist (who sees the divine realm as completely separate from the earthly, with the watchmaker God unable or unwilling to involve himself in the latter), his system is equally unequipped to account for the full complexity of our response to beauty. “As with materialism, deism does not explain beauty’s most maddening, saddening and deeply characteristic quality: the sense that it gives us a glimpse into the true nature of the universe, a glimpse that is both temporary and real and that suggests the world is not as it should be.”
Skeel’s approach to apologetics is remarkably original and fresh. It promises to engage seekers who grow cold when they hear phrases like “ontological argument” and defensive when discussion turns into debate. Though I wish he had refrained from setting himself in opposition to more logic- and science-based apologists, he at least does so in an irenic way that does not question their sincerity, their commitment to Christian truth, or their relative effectiveness. If received in the right spirit True Paradox offers a complementary approach with the power to widen the witness of Christianity to those in search not of formulas and propositions, but a story to help explain their experience of being human.
Louis Markos teaches English at Houston Baptist University and is the author of Apologetics for the 21st Century (Crossway).